Many people may plan to attend a sports event or visit elderly relatives this weekend. Is this a bad idea?
Hannah Devlin Science correspondent – The Guardian
People who do go to the pub this weekend may find it easier to get to the bar. Photograph: Simon Margetson Travel/Alamy Stock Photo
The UK government has not placed any restrictions on social gatherings or travel within the UK and has not advised people without symptoms to isolate themselves to curb the coronavirus outbreak. However, some experts say that “social distancing” can play a role. So which weekend activities are most risky?
Visiting elderly relatives
Elderly people and those with conditions that affect the immune and respiratory systems are by far the most vulnerable to Covid-19. In Italy, the over-80s have a mortality rate of about 20%, based on available data – although this figure may be inflated by hospitals being overwhelmed with patients. So is visiting a good idea?
“If you have frail, elderly relatives, no, I really don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Prof Francois Balloux, chair in computational systems biology at University College London. “I would not visit elderly, frail relatives at the moment.”
Balloux’s view is informed by growing evidence that people with Covid-19 may be at their most infectious before they start to feel unwell. So self-isolating once you have a fever or cough is not enough to ensure these vulnerable groups are protected.
Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said he would not stop visiting elderly relatives yet, but that it was worth rethinking participating in certain activities. “If I was older than I am now – I’m 63 – and in a particularly vulnerable group I would not currently go into a busy restaurant or pub or on the trains,” he said. “I would be starting to avoid those sorts of settings at the moment. For me it would be a gradual thing.”
Going to the pub
Should people be considering a night at home instead of a few jars down the local? “I don’t think we’re quite at that point yet,” said Hunter. However, he said people should think about reducing physical contact. “I’ve stopped shaking hands, not because I think it’s essential at the moment but because I want to get into the habit of doing it and I do currently try and stand a bit further away than I would have done,” he said. “It’s like when you change your computer password, for the first month you’re forever writing in the old one. We should be getting into the habit of doing these things sooner rather than later.”
“I’d still go to the pub,” said Balloux. “I’m not sure I should, but I would.” He is more sceptical about the effectiveness of cutting physical contact. “There’s a lot of focus on indirect transmission, but to be honest we have no clue about indirect versus direct transmission,” he said. “It’s a guess, but from the biology you’re very likely to catch it through the air without actually touching anything.”
Going swimming with children
One of the few positives in this outbreak is that children have barely been affected – in China, less than 1% of confirmed cases were children under nine and none of Italy’s more that 1,000 deaths were children. So children and babies are not likely to suffer severe symptoms.
Also, there is no evidence that the virus can live in chlorinated water. “It’s true that when you’re swimming, water is swirling in and out of your nose and mouth, but this is a respiratory virus. The current thinking appears to be that Sars-Cov-2 won’t survive if water is properly chlorinated,” said Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London.
Changing rooms also have a degree of built-in social distancing, with people separated into cubicles or at least leaving a decent amount of room for others to get changed. “Swimming is one of the things I feel quite comfortable with at the moment,” said Rohn.
Attending a sporting event
Premier League football is off the agenda for this weekend. But what are the risks associated with large public gatherings? Experts say the absolute numbers are not what matters here – a stadium might hold tens of thousands of spectators, but you will probably only be sat in close proximity to a handful.
“The real question around whether to ban big events is not about the risk to you as an individual,” said Hunter. “It’s the potential for the spread more globally. If you’ve got people travelling down from Scotland and taking trains to matches, its disseminating the infection around the country rather than the the risk to the individual.”
Looked at purely from the perspective of individual risk, however, Hunter said there was not a strong argument for avoiding such events.
Visiting a gym
For many people, exercise is extremely important, both physically and psychologically, and not something that can be easily sacrificed. Most viruses are transmitted more easily in indoor environments so one possibility would be exchanging indoor training for an exercise session or run in the park. If you visit the gym, there are additional hygiene measures you can take to reduce the chances of transmission. “I would probably be sanitising the handles on a cross trainer with a wipe or some hand gel rather than just using a towel,” said Rohn.
Travelling by bus or train
There are currently no travel restrictions in the UK, so how you travel and where you go is something that people are having to decide for themselves. Public transport can be hotspots for the spread of disease as they bring strangers into close contact for extended time periods. “Trains are enclosed spaces, there are a lot of people sneezing and coughing, the London Underground is quite an incubator,” said Rohn.
One option for some may be to consider other forms of transport such as walking or cycling. And people will also need to weigh up their own personal risk based on age and whether they are particularly likely to suffer serious symptoms. “If you are in the older age bracket there are a lot more things besides cruises that are quite dangerous for you,” said Rohn.